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[ Father and Sons ]

One of the inalienable rules of family businesses is that sons always want to do things differently from the way their fathers did them, and fathers always insist on interfering after they've 'officially' retired. Has this been true at Le Gavroche? John Radford talked to Michel Roux jr.

Michel Roux jr'No, No and no.' 'Well, perhaps a bit, and not as much now as at first, and not necessarily.' What was the third question again? Is he chasing the return of the third Michelin star? It's a bit too complicated to explain in a few words, so we'll return to it later and start at the beginning instead.

Michel Albert Roux is known as 'Michel junior' to avoid confusion with his uncle Michel (of The Waterside Inn) and it's just as well that 'Michel senior' called his own son Alain and not Albert as this would have been hopelessly confusing. Michel junior was born in England in 1960, seven years before his father and his uncle first established Le Gavroche, and he thinks he was always destined to cook. Certainly his education was steered that way pretty effectively from the age of sixteen, when he was apprenticed to Maitre Patissier Hellegouarch in Paris. Patisserie, as many great chefs will tell you, is the best way to start in the cookery business. In terms of selection of ingredients, the basic disciplines of cooking and attention to detail in the finished dish, it is almost a microcosm of the culinary arts, and Michel, like his father and uncle, still admits to a love of
working with pastry.

After three years, having learned the basics in Paris, he worked under his father in the kitchen of (the original) Le Gavroche for six months as a lowly commis de cuisine, leaving just before his twentieth birthday for a two-year stint with the legendary Alain Chapel at his eponymous hotel and restaurant in Mionnay, in the Rhone-Alpes region of France. Michel admits that Chapel was one of the most significant influences on his style and work, and that these were the formative years of what he has been able to achieve since.

Albert RouxIt was back to London and (the new) Le Gavroche at the beginning of 1982 for three months, learning his way around the new kitchen before military service intervened. Michel spent this (as did his cousin Alain, now at The Waterside Inn) cooking at the Elysee Palace in Paris during the tenure of Presidents Valerv Giscard d'Estaing and Francois Mitterand - the French armed forces are as serious about cookery as everybody else in France, but it does make you wonder what he'd have cooked up for the troops if he'd ever been called out on active service. After ten months serving up staff meals and working on the odd state banquet, Michel spent March and April of 1983 learning about meat at the famous Gerard Mothu in St-Mande in the Paris banlieu, before extending his knowledge for a further three months with one of the most respected charcutiers
in Paris: Boucherie Lamartine on the Avenue Victor Hugo.

By this time Michel had been schooled in most aspects of food and cookery but, just for good measure, he spent August of 1983 working for Finlay Robertson Chartered Accountants in London, to make sure that he also had some idea of what's involved in balancing the books.

His first 'senior' post came next: five months as sous-chef at Gavvers, the restaurant which had been the original Le Gavroche, but there was still more to learn. In January 1984 he moved to La Tante Claire in Chelsea, going back to the rank of commis but working with one of London's greatest chefs, Pierre Koffmann. He stayed there until August and spent the rest of the year at the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong - one of the world's most luxurious hotels and now known as the Mandarin Oriental.

Michel returned to England at the beginning of 1985 and spent the next four months working with his Uncle Michel at The Waterside Inn in Bray. In May 1985 he turned 26 and, you might think was ready to take on a bit more responsibility in the kitchen. Indeed he was, but not yet at Le Gavroche. At that time the Roux brothers - Albert and Michel sr. - had a small catering empire which included not only The Waterside Inn and Le Gavroche but also Gavvers, Le Poulbot, Rouxl Britannia and Le Gamin as well as contract-catering and specialist patisserie companies. Michel jr worked as chef there for five years, coping with the financial, management, logistic and culinary deadlines inherent in such a business, during which time he had more then enough opportunity to experience almost everything that the restaurant business can throw in the way of a chef-

In 1990 Albert turned 55 and decided that, perhaps, it was time for his son to take 'over the reins at Le Gavroche. This coincided with a restructuring of the Roux 'empire', with the peripheral business being sold and Michel Sr. taking over sole ownership and responsibility for The Waterside Inn, whilst Albert did the same at Le Gavroche. So finally, at the age of just 31, Michel Albert Roux became chef de cuisine in place of his father.

'They were big boots to fill' says Michel. 'And my style of cookery is different from that of my father.' He describes Albert as being the archetypal 'classical-bourgeois' chef: very traditional but, 'of course, he was trained in a different era, and London in 1967 - or 1977 or even 1987 - was a very different place from a restaurant point of view compared with today'. Michel wanted to be a bit more inventive - to offer something new as well as the classic dishes which had made the restaurant famous without sacrificing any of the quality; to make the service more 'client-friendly' without losing its professionalism or efficiency. Did Albert approve?

'He still eats here regularly', says Michel, 'and he always says exactly what he thinks. These days, he has a bit less to say than he used to. . . .' And what about the stars, those coveted, gold-plated Michelin stars? They are not, of course, awarded to the restaurant, they are awarded to the chef, and when a chef changes restaurants - or a restaurant changes chefs - the inspectors come again and often to see whether and how things have changed. In the event, three stars became two - still a pretty good accolade for a chef in his early thirties, and Michel is perfectly relaxed about that.

'Three stars can be like cooking in handcuffs.' He says - the discipline of maintaining exactly the same standards in exactly the same dishes can become very boring. He likes to experiment, and the Michelin inspectors get very worried about that, but with two stars he can continue the gentle evolution in what Le Gavroche does without frightening away loyal customers. 'I want to delight them and surprise them, but it has to be done with the guarantee of quality which people have come to expect of Le Gavroche.'

Then there's the clientele: Michel disparages the food-anoraks who go to all the three-starred restaurants in the world 'just to get their passport stamped so they can say they've been.' Rather like his father Albert at the Cafe Roux in Amsterdam Michel wants a restaurant which is busy, full of people who are there for the love of good food and wine and who will come and enjoy again.

So how important is the 'Frenchness' of Le Gavroche? Vitally important, says Michel. Twenty, even ten years ago there was a 'French' restaurant on almost every street corner in London. In 2001 they're almost an endangered species, but those which have survived are the ones which never compromised on what they did and maintained that guarantee of quality which is the most important factor in the reputation of a restaurant or, indeed, any other type of business. But, of course, there have been difficult times in the recent past. The recession of 1989 to 1994 saw restaurants queuing up to jump into the well of oblivion as diners stayed at home in droves. What happened at Le Gavroche?

'We don't claim to be recession-proof, but if you offer value, and if you never compromise that value, and if your customers know that it's absolutely certain that when they come it will be just as good as it always was, then you can survive. We had some quiet nights, but not too many.'

At 41, Michel has a ten-year-old daughter called Emily, and I asked whether she was showing any signs of interest in becoming the third generation of the Roux family to go into the kitchen, but apparently, so far, she has expressed more of an interest in eating than cooking, which is probably a very healthy attitude. And what of Michel's own future? Does he see himself on the range at Upper Brook Street for ever? Well, no, he says he thinks he might like to do something different although it's not likely to be very far from cooking. Indeed, given Albert's consultancy work and Uncle Michel's burgeoning career as a writer, there's probably a lot of opportunity and, in any case, there's still a lot of work to be done at Le Gavroche . . .

. . . Such as getting that third star? Handcuffs or not, it's a copper-bottomed calling-bird for new customers. He smiles and shrugs: 'if they offer it, of course I'm not going to say no, but I'm not actively going for it.'

And if they offer it, and you say yes, and then they take it away a year later because you've been too - experimental for their conservative tastes? 'Easy come, easy go.'

This is obviously a new definition of the word 'easy' that I haven't encountered before.

John Radford
published in Vivace
[a way of life]

© le gavroche

This article has been published with the kind permission of Michel Roux jr of Le Gavroche. Le Gavroche is one of the UK's finest restaurants. Its opening in 1967 by brothers Albert and Michel Roux marked the revolution of restaurants in London. Since then, Le Gavroche has continued to set the standards of cooking and service by which other places are judged - it was the first UK restaurant to be awarded one, two then three Michelin Stars.

Today the reputation of Le Gavroche continues to ride high in the eyes of critics and customers and now firmly rests on the food prepared by Michel Roux Jnr who took over the day to day running of the kitchen from his father, Albert, in 1991.

If you would like to visit Michel Roux jr's web site <click here>



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